The career of another Arizona television broadcast legend came to an end Friday night as Michael Grant signed off from “Horizon,” the daily news and public affairs program broadcast by PBS affiliate KAET-TV (Channel 8).
Public broadcasting never has matched the popularity of the Valley’s commercial TV stations, so Grant isn’t as well-known as prior generations of news anchor giants such as Ray Thompson, Bill Close or Mary Jo West. But as the Tribune’s Ryan Gabrielson reported Thursday, viewers who wanted a deeper understanding of Arizona politics in 30 minutes or less made Grant and his show a regular stop on their television dial for 25 years.
Grant’s “other” job as a lawyer who works on utility and telecommunications issues gave him a wealth of contacts at the state Capitol to call on for background information and on-air guests. But at the same time, Grant consistently avoided involvement with political parties or causes, giving him the necessary distance and detachment to offer a credible platform for even-handed, thoughtful debate on the issues of the day.
“He was just as well-informed as any panelist — quite often, more so — but he went out of his way to make everyone else shine,” said Chris Coppola, the Tribune’s deputy editor for news. “Every time I was on that show, it was just like sitting around with friends talking politics — I hardly ever realized there were cameras in the room.”
As a result of that relaxed but knowledgeable atmosphere, “Horizon” studios at Arizona State University became a favorite haunt for politicians eager to discuss their concerns at length. Governors and federal lawmakers came to Grant’s desk to pitch their new budget proposals and latest programs without fear of being shouted down or fawned over. State lawmakers caught up in some controversy sat under the bright lights to present their defense. Grant and his producers worked endlessly to get all of the key players on a hot issue in the same room, so the host could truly moderate instead of being forced into the role of devil’s advocate.
“Horizon” is broadcast at 7 p.m. five days a week, but the most popular night has been Friday’s review of the week’s news with a rotating collection of journalists (which has included this opinion writer). Howard Fischer, chief correspondent for Capitol Media Services, has been a fixture on the Friday show from the beginning. Fischer said viewers enjoy hearing about the personalities behind the news stories from the writers who cover them, and sometimes “Horizon” fans pick up tidbits that weren’t part of the original stories.
“It’s a peeling back of the curtain,” Fischer said. “It’s one thing to say in print this is what happened. It’s something different to be just sitting there and saying, ‘Michael, you won’t believe how this happened.’ …”
As Grant’s era came to a close last week, I asked a few of the other regulars on the journalists roundtable to share their thoughts about Grant’s career and their appearances on the show.
THE FIRST TIME
Tribune investigative reporter Mark Flatten has been a repeat guest on “Horizon” for two decades, going back to when he worked for the old Scottsdale Progress before it merged with the Tribune. Flatten was preparing to move to the state politics beat when he was first asked to go on the show and talk about the latest scandal at city hall:
“It is disquieting to stare into the big, round glass eye. Four of them is enough to rattle anyone. So my stomach was churning the first time I was on ‘Horizon,’ surrounded by the television cameras.
“I’d watched the program and seen others choke. Some mumbled. Others recited their notes as though giving a college dissertation. One journalist froze completely, slumping over in her chair and staring at the table.
“I was determined not to make a fool of myself. I didn’t really expect a pep talk from host Michael Grant, and I didn’t get one. It wouldn’t have done any good. What I got instead was a relaxed conversation. In minutes, I was at ease. We were just discussing the events of the day.
“It takes a special talent to foster meaningful conversation, especially with those big glass eyes staring at you. It is Michael’s gift. His knowledge of events and understanding of issues have always impressed me. Every time I did the show, Michael seemed to know as much about the goings-on we discussed as those of us who covered them every day.
“His coolness in the spotlight, his calm demeanor, is something that comes naturally. That was never more apparent than in 1996, when he was the moderator for a nationally televised Republican presidential primary debate. As always, he knew the complex issues and forced meaningful answers from the contenders, at times having the presence of mind to interrupt them when they were drifting off topic.
“But the thing about Michael that has always impressed me the most is his ability to put his guests at ease so that the distractions of television cameras, of political rhetoric, of rehearsed talking points can be set aside. The end result has always been a meaningful discussion of issues that has served ‘Horizon’ viewers well.”
SUDDENLY A STAR
Robbie Sherwood recently joined one of Scottsdale’s premier publicity and political consulting firms, Rose and Allyn Public Relations. But Sherwood usually landed in the central chair when he joined the journalists’ panel as a Capitol reporter for the Arizona Republic. Like many of his colleagues, Sherwood was caught off-guard when those Friday night chats brought him more attention than his regular job.
“ ‘Horizon’ may not exactly rock the ratings of the Richter scale, but its audience of politicians, politicos and political junkies is solid and intensely loyal. I found this out during my six-year stint as a somewhat regular player on the Friday Journalists Roundtable.
“Like every ink-stained nobody who becomes a guest on the show, you suddenly become a minor somebody. And that means ‘Horizon’ junkies will approach as if they’ve known you for years, in grocery store lines, at a clothing rack at Dillard’s, even in the middle of a pickup basketball game. You’ve become a part of their world, so they offer advice (‘if you sit on the back of your jacket, it won’t bunch up at the shoulders like that’), and then they have questions (‘Does that Howie Fischer have an off switch?’ Answer: No).
“But the main source of curiosity is, of course, Michael Grant. Is he as cool as he seems? Is that voice for real? And lately, who do you think will replace him?
“Michael Grant is, in fact, even cooler than he seems. I’ve never seen him less than good-humored, even when late guests or technical glitches are creating drama right up until showtime. My favorite trick of Michael’s, which the viewer never gets to see, is how he can tell a joke right up until the cameras roll and never miss a cue (…and then the bartender says, ‘I was talking to the parrot.’ Good evening, I’m Michael Grant and welcome to another edition of ‘Horizon’). That’s why the reporters often look like they are stifling a laugh during their introductions.
“As for the voice, that’s the real deal, a gift from God and nicotine.
“It’s probably not polite to say so, but I fear for whoever tries to fill Michael Grant’s shoes. There was nothing wrong with Matt Doherty, the already forgotten former University of North Carolina basketball coach whose only crime was attempting, and failing, to replace a legend. He just wasn’t Dean Smith. And the next host won’t be Michael Grant.”
ONCE A BROADCASTER...
Nearly a decade has past since Tribune writer Paul Giblin first went on “Horizon” to talk about a controversial plan to build a football stadium in west Mesa. But his favorite story about Grant happens to be one of his most recent.
“Just before the November elections, final preparations were being made for a Friday taping and I took my seat at the pentagonal table, organizing my notes on the key races I was covering: Jon Kyl vs. Jim Pederson and J.D. Hayworth vs. Harry Mitchell. Technicians checked the lighting and sound equipment. The studio director stood next to the main camera and silently counted down the seconds before the program was set to begin. Grant spoke. This was important, he said.
“He told the panelists he hadn’t always been the host of ‘Horizon.’ There had been a time, years ago, when he worked as a DJ on a rock ’n’ roll radio station. Everything seemed to be going fine, then one Friday, station managers called a meeting and explained that the station was changing its format from rock to country on the following Monday.
“Grant decided he couldn’t go from being a rock jock to a country record spinner during the span of a single weekend. It wouldn’t seem right. He decided that for the first time in his career, he would need a stage name.
“As the ‘Horizon’ studio lights brightened and one of the cameramen arced his camera to get the sweeping opening shot, Grant said he left the radio station that Friday afternoon with no idea whom he would be on Monday. Then during the weekend, in the middle of a busy street, inspiration struck.
“He came back to the radio station as Jay Walker!
“I tried to stifle a laugh. The stage director shook her head and counted down the final second. Grant looked into the camera just as his microphone clicked on. Then, in a perfectly steady voice, he welcomed viewers to another edition of ‘Horizon.’
“By any name, Grant set the standard every time he went on the air. His timing, of course, was perfect. More importantly, though, he approached his position as host of ‘Horizon’ with professionalism and civility. With Grant as host, every guest knew the program would feature intelligence instead of intimidation, discussion instead of sound bites, insight rather than rhetoric.”
INTO THE FUTURE
For a program that constantly strives to bring answers to its audience, it’s odd there are so many questions about where “Horizon” goes next. KAET and ASU only recently launched a national search to find Grant’s permanent replacement, so the next few weeks will bring a cornucopia of fill-in moderators who are likely to include Fischer and José Cárdenas, host of a weekly sister show devoted to a Hispanic perspective on political issues.
The most lasting image of the past 25 years is Grant’s placid, unflappable demeanor and his gentle prodding with questions. So, clearly, the next incarnation of “Horizon” will be shaped in large measure by the personality of its new host. ASU also has launched a fundraising drive to pay for a new studio set when the entire KAET station moves to the university’s downtown Phoenix campus.
But Fischer suspects the essential nature of the show will remain, in part because Grant found a successful formula, in part because “Horizon’s” behind-the-scenes management team is staying together, and in part because that’s how PBS works.
“I don’t think there will be any major changes, if only for the reason that public broadcasting is like an aircraft carrier, it doesn’t move well,” Fischer said.